Famed Cryptographers, Turing Awardees Back Apple at RSA Conference

No surprise—the conflict between Apple and the FBI is dominating many sessions at the big RSA Conference in San Francisco this week.

Some of the most intriguing comments came from a panel of distinguished cryptographers, including Whitfield Diffie, former chief security officer of Sun Microsystems, and Stanford professor Martin Hellman. On the RSA stage before the discussion began, Hellman and Diffie were named the 2015 winners of the Association for Computing Machinery’s ACM A.M. Turing Award, as co-authors of a 1976 paper on concepts in cryptography that laid the foundation for today’s Internet security protocols.

Here are some highlights from the discussion:

Hellman said he will sign an amicus brief opposing the court order demanding that Apple help the FBI crack into an iPhone used by one of the suspects in the San Bernardino terrorist attack.

Hellman said former NSA director Bobby Inman “probably wanted to throw Whit and I in jail in the 1970’s.” But he said he and his old enemy, Inman, have now become friends. Hellman said he comprehends the concerns behind law enforcement’s push for access to personal data.

“We need to work with the FBI. We need to work with the NSA,” Hellman said. “I would encourage us to try to put ourselves in the shoes of these agencies.”

But Hellman said if the court order in the Apple v. FBI case is allowed to stand, it would be followed by thousands of similar government requests, not only from this country, but also from other nations, including totalitarian states. Faced with these multiple demands, tech companies might feel pressured to create a universal back door for government investigators, Hellman said.

Hellman noted that British mathematician Alan Turing, the seminal World War II codebreaker, was persecuted by his government for being gay. “This may have lead to his death,” he said. (The ACM A.M. Turing award was named in honor of Alan Turing.)

Diffie also brought up the thorny tension between law enforcement and private conduct.

“It was a felony in the 1950’s to have a gay sex life,” Diffie said. “We are moving our culture into digital media…We are moving into an era [marked by] the interplay of people and machines. Who controls machines is going to be who controls the world.”

Another panelist, the dreadlocked Bay Area security expert who goes by the name Moxie Marlinspike, said gay people would never have been able to gain the right to marry if they hadn’t had a zone of freedom to develop their relationships.

“I think it should be possible to break the law,” Marlinspike said. Government agencies have claimed that heightening their access to stronger surveillance tools will serve the public good, he said. “I don’t know that that’s necessarily true.”

“The reason why this is happening is that Apple decided to make a product that actually pleases their customers,” Marlinspike said. “A lot of companies just sell their customers out.”

Panelist Ronald Rivest, an MIT cryptographer (he’s the “R” in RSA), said Congress is the right place to decide the balance between law enforcement’s needs and the right to privacy. The court order could set a precedent for an unknown scope of government demands from tech companies, he said.

“Could anybody be compelled to do anything?” Rivest asked. “The FBI can ask any third party—whether related to the case or not—to do anything not specifically prohibited by law.” The precedent would not cover just opening a single phone, he said. “I think what the FBI is asking is really inappropriate.”

Adi Shamir, the fifth panelist (and the “S” in RSA), said the FBI’s demand concerns a single phone. “The question is, where do you draw the line?” he said. Shamir said Apple picked the wrong time to stake a stand, in a case involving accused terrorists.

“In my opinion, Apple goofed in several ways,’’ Shamir said. “They should have complied this time, and waited for a better test case.”

Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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